US tech companies hired more H-1B workers last year to fill talent gaps

Amazon, Microsoft, and IBM are among the large tech firms that hired the most workers on H-1B visas in 2017.

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  • Amazon, Microsoft, Intel, Google, Facebook, and Apple all increased the number of approved H-1B visa workers in FY 2017. -- National Foundation for American Policy, 2018
  • A lack of US citizen STEM graduates and emerging technologies such as driverless cars may be the reason that US tech companies are hiring more highly skilled foreign workers. -- National Foundation for American Policy, 2018

US tech companies are approving more H-1B visas to fill talent gaps than in the past, according to a report from the National Foundation for American Policy.

Amazon saw a 78% increase (1,099 workers) in approved H-1B petitions for initial employment between FY 2016 and FY 2017, the report found. Microsoft increased by 29% (334 workers), and Intel increased by 19% (200 workers).

For those unfamiliar, the H-1B work visa is meant to be granted to fill specialty occupations, often those that require certain technical skills or an advanced degree.

The top H-1B employers among large tech companies are also those that spend the most on research and development (R&D). In 2017, Amazon spent about $23 billion on R&D, followed by Alphabet ($16.6 billion), Intel ($13.1 billion), and Microsoft ($12.3 billion).

SEE: IT jobs 2018: Hiring priorities, growth areas, and strategies to fill open roles (Tech Pro Research)

Emerging technologies including driverless vehicles may also be increasing the demand for highly skilled technical workers, including foreign-born researchers, the report noted. Tesla approved 207 new H-1B petitions in FY 2017, while Uber approved 158 and General Motors approved 179.

The US has reached the annual limit on H-1B visas for the past 16 years, according to the report. This is due in part to its low level relative to the size of the US labor force (85,000 visas, versus 160 million US workers), and due to the fact that the cap was set in 1990, before the internet increased the demand for high-skilled technical labor, the report said.

Further, at US universities, 81% of full-time graduate students in electrical engineering and 79% of those in computer science are international students, so it makes sense that American tech companies would want to recruit them, the report said.

In April 2017, US Citizenship and Immigration Services under President Donald Trump issued new, stricter guidelines for computer programmers looking to apply for an H-1B visa, while also taking steps to combat abuse and fraud in the program. And despite the president's opposition to the visa program, the number of visas available remained the same through FY 2018.

The visas are a contentious issue in the US, with opponents citing abuse (as in the case at Disney World, where foreign workers were allegedly used to lower wages or displace American workers). However, research published in the Journal of Labor Economics found that H-1B visa holders contribute to US productivity growth, and increase the wages of American-born workers as well.

This month, US Citizenship and Immigration Services announced that it had recieved 190,000 H-1B applications, well above the 85,000 annual limit. "The data indicate the problem is not which companies are receiving H-1B visas but that the 85,000-annual limit is too low for an economy the size of the United States," the report stated.

The top 10 employers of new approved H-1B initial petitions in FY 2017 are as follows:

  1. Cognizant (3,194 new visas)
  2. Amazon (2,515 new visas)
  3. TCS (2,312 new visas)
  4. Tech Mahindra (2,233 new visas)
  5. Microsoft (1,479 new visas)
  6. IBM (1,231 new visas)
  7. Intel (1,230 new visas)
  8. Infosys (1,218 new visas)
  9. Google (1,213 new visas)
  10. Wipro (1,210 new visas)

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Image: iStockphoto/robertiez